Whether we’re feeling guilty about our repeat viewings of Annie Hall or attempting to hide how stoked we are at the announcement of a new Roman Polanski film, it’s clear that there are some murky moral waters surrounding Hollywood’s A-gamers. And – as this year’s Oscars have reinforced – the awards season is one of those times when they come to light.
Last season’s Oscar race was barely over when a scandal began, thanks to Nate Parker, the writer, director, and star of The Birth of a Nation. At 2016’s Sundance, audiences went wild for the film about the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner. In the heat of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, the hype was probably fuelled by the desire of Hollywood to shake off it’s racist image by introducing a talented new guy to the scene. But the movie bombed after revelations about Parker’s past came to light.
Battery, Rape, and the Rest
Back in 1999, Parker and his college roommate had been charged with raping a classmate, who killed herself years later. Parker was acquitted of all charges and maintained his innocence but the theories stipulate that his career has taken a hit: The Birth of a Nation massively underperformed at the box office and had totally vanished from any awards chatter.
This year, at the annual Academy Awards, viewers weren’t happy with Casey Affleck's Best Actor win for his (undeniably great) performance in Manchester By The Sea. Their issue wasn’t with Affleck's acting, but that he was nominated at all.
In 2010, two women who worked on the set of Affleck's Joaquin Phoenix-starring I'm Still Here filed sexual harassment suits against Affleck. Activists, critics and actors have since argued that Affleck's Oscar win tacitly condones his alleged behavior.
Affleck himself commented after his win that “I believe that any kind of mistreatment of anyone for any reason is unacceptable and abhorrent, and everyone deserves to be treated with respect in the workplace and anywhere else.” He continued, “There’s really nothing I can do about it… Other than live my life the way I know I live it and to speak to what my own values are and how I try to live by them all the time.”
Parker and Affleck are just two in a long line of talented yet misbehaving men who have produced something great by the Academy’s standards. Roman Polanski fled the States after pleading guilty to the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl and has since won an Oscar. Woody Allen has been accused of sexually abusing his adopted daughter but has been honored by the Academy. Mel Gibson was nominated for Best Director for Hacksaw Ridge despite the fact that he admitted to battering his ex-girlfriend. And then there’s the reignited rage over Best Actor Marlon Brando and his nonconsensual Last Tango in Paris “butter rape” scene.
How Should We Interpret Art?
Do the biographies of these talented Hollywood bad guys really matter? If the actor is villainous, should the Academy reward him? It all boils down to our ideas about whether or not a work of art should be embraced, despite the apparent sins of the artist - a tricky subject indeed.
Those who observe Adolf Hitler’s paintings, before knowing that he’s the artist behind them, would probably be impressed - noting a strong sense of architecture in his work. There’s no law against the sale of Hitler’s art works in Germany, either, as long as they don’t show any Swastikas (although various questions have been raised about the morality of allowing such sales to go ahead).
If you observed Hitler’s artwork knowing that he was the creator, on the other hand, then you might view the same paintings through a different lens. Perhaps your attention would be focused on the context in which the piece was produced; you might try to interpret his street scene with reference to his repugnant crimes.
Of course, we’re not comparing the crimes of Affleck and Hitler. We’re merely saying that, if the work of art were infused with the skewed ideologies of either an alleged sexual harasser or a Nazi, then we might jump to faster conclusions. When the art stands alone from the artist, we’re not so easily affected. Essentially, context plays an important role in how we take in the art that we’re viewing.
Is the Work Just the Work?
This leaves us pondering whether the power of a movie is found in the moral actions of both the artists and the viewer, or within the movie itself? Perhaps it’s a combination. We’re not here to say whether or not it’s acceptable for you to place the value of the artwork strictly by what you know about the artist’s personal life. As far as a movie goes, it’s up to you to decide whether or not you appreciate it.
That said, despite the undeniably reprehensible actions that both Parker and Affleck have been accused of, their talents remain in tact. It seems misguided to demand an ethical CAT scan for everyone who’s nominated for an Oscar. What if it were between Affleck and Brendan Fraser for Best Actor, and you thought Fraser was a great guy but Affleck gave the better performance?
The Oscars are not the Best Human Being awards. We're talking best picture, best director, best actor. To watch a movie is to have an aesthetic response to the work, not to make a moral judgment about its creator or star.
You Can’t Stifle Art
It’s also worth noting that – although perhaps you’ll never be able to fully separate Affleck’s role as complicated-yet-loveable Lee Chandler in Manchester By The Sea from his sexual assault allegations – there are dangerous implications in protesting the art itself, based on the artist’s behavior.
While Affleck garnered a standing ovation for receiving the award at this year’s Oscars, Brie Larson, who won Best Actress in 2016 for her role in Room (in which she plays a rape survivor), appeared to offer the world a silent protest as she stood alongside him on stage, refusing to applaud. A courageous act of defiance, for sure, and probably the only right and honorable thing for a woman in the film industry to have done.
Many individuals are also choosing to boycott Manchester By The Sea, in light of Casey’s alleged abuse. And why not? Moral personal choice is fair game. But to ban a film based on an artist’s personal life would be hugely different - and quite dangerous.
Art has a lot to offer, in a lot of different ways: Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea offers a beautiful visual experience from which a budding filmmaker could learn about grade-A cinematography. Similarly, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf offers us an insightful look at how a ketamine-fuelled psychopath attempts to justify the planned genocide of an entire ethnicity. To ban or to censor artwork is to deny discussion around the art itself.
Historically, creating art is synonymous with freedom of expression and speaking back. The medium dives headfirst into the uncharted perils and delights of the human condition. Once your judgement of a person’s moral behavior transfers to their artwork, you threaten the artistic world in general. Disallowing the very pieces that help us to redefine moral boundaries – whatever their origin and whoever their creator – threatens the stagnation of morality and threatens to stifle creative activism.
Affleck and Parker’s questionable reputations are more than just footnotes to a consideration of their Hollywood careers. It's important to acknowledge both the perception sold to the public – that they're loving fathers, philanthropists, and good-looking subjects of glossy magazine features – while also being wise to the alternative reality: that they're complicated, and perhaps even maleficent men. But, as George Orwell once wrote about Salvador Dalí’s morally questionable art:
One ought to be able to hold in one's head simultaneously the two facts that Dalí is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being.
Being cynical allows us to acknowledge Parker and Affleck as men in both their professional and personal capacities – stains on humanity perhaps, and talented individuals undoubtedly – and come to our own conclusions about the work that they produce. Cynicism allows us to remain vigilant against malice – abuse, degradation, domination – and at the same time regard Hollywood beauty as the fundamentally amoral phenomenon that it really is.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
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